Home Theater

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

Are Home Theaters Pushing Movie Theaters to Improve?

For years, home theater technology has been chasing after the commercial cinema, trying to keep up with this supposed Holy Grail of the cinematic experience. And over the years, every development that has come to the home —large screen, surround sound, 3D, and Dolby Atmos to name a few—began its life in a commercial cinema.

 

But lately the tides seem to be turning. Due to a variety of factors including the drastic improvement of home technologies, systems becoming far more affordable, and the wealth of original content provided by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, more and more people are opting out of the commercial cinema experience and deciding to stay home.

 

One way in which commercial cinemas are trying to lure people back is through an experience called Premium Large Format (PLF). With massive screens, improved projection systems, and superior audio design, these PLF auditoriums offer a cinematic experience akin to what you could experience should you get an invitation to the screening room at Dolby Laboratories or The Stag at Lucasfilm. In short, the ultimate manner in which to experience a film in the way that matches the artists’ intent.

 

The PLF with the greatest name recognition by far is IMAX, which has been around for years and has over 1,300 systems installed around the world. Cinemagoers equate IMAX with a massive screen and impressive 11-channel digital surround system (but there are many online complaints that the brand has been diluted since the introduction of Digital IMAX—often derogatorily called LIE-MAX—in 2008, which uses significantly smaller screens and far lower resolution prints).

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

Two other names in the PLF space include Dolby Cinema and ScreenX. (Barco had a short-lived venture in this category with its innovative Barco Escape technology, but it was shuttered in February of 2018.)

 

This past week, Sony announced it will be throwing its hat into the PLF space with Sony Digital Cinema, with the first screen set to open in Las Vegas this spring. Like Dolby Cinemas, the Sony Digital Cinemas will feature dual-laser 4K projection systems for an incredibly bright and contrasty image, as well as an immersive audio system, and luxury reclining seats.

 

One unique aspect of the Sony endeavor is that the company controls the cinematic process from end to end, from manufacturing the digital cameras used in filming, through the audio and video post-production at Sony Pictures Studios, to creating the cinematic 4K projectors. (While Sony did have its own version of theatrical surround sound—Sony Dynamic Digital Sound [SDDS]—this has long been discontinued, and the Sony cinemas will reportedly use Dolby Atmos immersive audio.)

 

One area where commercial cinemas have struggled to keep up with the home experience is through delivering high dynamic range (HDR) video. Whereas even relatively inexpensive direct-view 4K displays can produce a pretty dynamic HDR image, most commercial projectors fail to produce the deep blacks and bright whites needed to rival a direct-view home display. Couple that with the fact that many commercial cinemas run their projector lamps until they are on their last hours, making for a far dimmer experience that likely wouldn’t come anywhere near the minimum SMPTE (Society Motion Picture and Television Engineers) standard of 16 foot-lamberts.

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

By using customized, dual-laser projectors (like those shown at left) à la Dolby Cinema, the Sony Digital Cinema should be able to deliver fantastic image quality on a massive screen, with HDR rivaling virtually any display. The Dolby Cinema system can deliver a staggering 31 foot-lamberts on screenalmost twice the brightness of the SMPTE recommended standard—while producing 500 times the dynamic range of a typical cinema projector,

delivering the deepest black levels of any commercial projector, and producing an unbelievable 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. All that on a screen 68 feet wide!

 

Possibly of greater interest is the announcement from Bob Raposo, head of Sony’s theater business, that while these cinemas will launch with Sony’s laser projection system, the company has been developing a massive LED screen that could replace projection.

 

“Sony is going to once again revolutionize how people see movies, with our 4K laser projector and with our new technologies led by Crystal LED,” Raposo said. “Our goal is to deliver the ultimate brightness with mind-blowing contrast, allowing movies to be shown the way the movie-maker intended, without compromise and in the highest quality possible. Sony Crystal LED will create that new type of immersive experience for the marketplace, as Sony 4K did in digital cinema’s first phase. This is no doubt the future of cinema and our big opportunity to help exhibitors significantly differentiate themselves from the competition.”

 

Other benefits of these luxury PLF cinemas will include premium food and beverage offerings, stadium seating, and oversized reclining seating that can be reserved ahead of time.

 

The question remains, is it all enough? Will a premium experience be enough to lure you back to the cineplex, or are you content enjoying a luxury experience in the privacy of your own home?

—John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 4

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 4
Theo's Corner

I am in the middle of struggling with the final phase of developing the Rayva home theater designs so they can be easily and affordably manufactured, shipped, and assembled. This phase requires a very strict engineering discipline to ensure that all the elements can be consistently reproduced.

 

I originally started designing the Rayva elements mostly in the way I used to do with custom-designed projects. I designed them, based not on a consistent formula, but on what I wanted the theater to look like. That is a legitimate approach when you’re designing one theater at a time because with enough time, money, and effort, it’s possible to design just about any theater. But if you have 20 theaters on order that need to be custom designed, there will always be unexpected bumps that can stall the process, even if you approach it with a rigid discipline.

I’ve been working non-stop for the past six months to break down in parts all the elements that make up the wall panels described in my last column (and shown below). We are now in the process of doing the same thing for our designers’ artwork that goes on the surface of these panels. The whole thing is like a cutaway view of a complex object. When you slice the thing you’re designing in the middle, you can see the various layers that make up what you normally see as a single object.

 

We are making the effort to figure out how to productize all the design elements so we can guarantee that they can be easily and repeatedly manufactured. We are turning what used to be treated as a custom-produced element into something that can be fabricated, inventoried, and then assembled as easily as an Ikea cabinet.  Each theater and each design consists of many parts that come in a box with an instruction diagram that shows how to put it together.

 

The challenge for me is, how do I dig deeper and deeper into the makeup of an object and turn it into something that looks like what I have in mind, while ensuring it can be engineered to be built as a part?

 

This has been a fascinating process. We brought on board Paul Stary, a brilliant engineer, who thinks about design differently than I do. I tend not to see the details; I see the big picture. And sometimes this can be a limitation. The 

bottom line is that I’m a designer, so I’m drawn into the look of a product. An engineer sees behind that look. But an engineer doesn’t always know what a designer has in mind. So the process of working together—an artist and an engineer—has been fascinating as we seek to find solutions that 

simplify what the product is without compromising its aesthetic principle.

 

I’m intrigued by this tug of war between engineering and aesthetic because I never had to do it before. In designing a custom theater, my team and I would draw up construction documents, give them to the contractor to build from, and we never had real control of construction methods. It is different when you work closely with an engineer. The collaboration creates the opportunity to constantly review the product from the aesthetic, manufacturing, installation, and functionality perspectives. More importantly, the collaboration creates a “recipe” that can be repeated again and again with a guaranteed result.

 

The whole time I’ve been involved in this process I’ve been asking myself, “Why is this so difficult?” It’s difficult because it requires two disciplines—design and engineering. I envy people who are capable of both. If you look back at what Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci did, they were the prime examples of an engineer 

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 4

One of our wall panels, shown on its mounting rails
and without its fabric covering.

and an artist together in the same person. That is what makes titans or geniuses like that gamechangers. So I just envy what they do, because I’m not an engineer and I need that support.

 

In my next column, I’ll interview my collaborator Paul Stary about the process of engineering the Rayva rooms.

 

Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is also an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo
is the Executive Director of Rayva.

Why HTA is the Real Deal

Why HTA is the Real Deal

During the lengthy period where my career as a custom installer (beginning in March of 1998) and my role as technology editor (starting around 2000) have overlapped, I’ve written numerous posts similar to Eric Thies’ recent, “How to Find the Perfect Integrator.”

 

Sadly, none of them seem to have made much of a difference.

 

I agree with everything Eric said, but principally that most people take almost no time to vet their technology integrator. The bar being so low to becoming an integrator—most states will let you place a magnet on the side of your truck and call yourself Joe’s AV without even requiring a license for low-voltage work—has led to a glut of terrible work, and dissatisfied customers.

 

Over the years, our company, Custom Theater and Audio, has resurrected numerous projects for people who let the most random people into their homes to handle the technology install. Even though they comprehend that it’s too complicated for them to do, for whatever reason they think that virtually anyone else is qualified to handle their technology needs. I’m not even kidding when I say that some people say they hired “some guy” that was walking through the neighborhood putting leaflets on doors, had the flooring guy do it, used the electrician, used someone the electrician knew, etc. The tragedy is that most of these people ended up spending good money to get a system that was never right for their needs, never worked right, and then had to pay us more to come in and fix or replace it.

 

This is exceptionally frustrating and, frankly, bad for the entire industry because all installation companies end up being lumped together in the minds of people who have been burned by a bad installation. And them passing on their bad experience to others tarnishes the good along with the bad.

 

That’s one of the reasons why the Home Technology Association (HTA) mentioned in Eric’s post intrigued me: Could this certification identify the best integration firms and help the cream rise to the top? This would not only help customers looking to hire a good company but (more selfishly) help my company stand out as one of the good guys.

 

HTA’s Director of Certification, Josh Christian, says the goal of certification is to do for the custom installation industry what the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) has done for diamonds, allowing anyone to walk into virtually any reputable jewelry store and know that they’re purchasing a stone that has been independently verified for quality.

 

While HTA doesn’t guarantee that selecting a certified professional will result in terrific performance or outcome, in a sea of uncertainty, it certainly offers a beacon to help guide customers towards making a more informed selection from a pre-qualified group of top candidates.

 

My company recently went through the application process to became HTA Certified, and I can attest that it is a rigorous process, taking me several hours to research and gather all of the required information. Compared to the CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association) application, which has you fill out a single-page form asking only the most basic information (company address, size, gross revenue) and credit card information, and essentially approves any company willing to pay the $500 annual registration, HTA mines far deeper into how a company actually operates.

 

Josh said the application process is so thorough for two reasons. First, it helps HTA identify the best-in-class installation companies and provide a real look into their business operations and the kinds of jobs they do. Second, the sheer length and breadth of it scares away exactly the kinds of companies they want to avoid. (As does the $400 application fee, which has the applying company putting some skin in the game.)

Why the HTA is the Real Deal

Once certified, companies are listed on HTA’s website. (Click here—or on the image above-—to see our company page.) A consumer looking to hire an installation firm can get a pretty good idea if a company is going to be a good fit for their needs.

 

How long have they been in business?
Longevity is generally a good indicator that the company will be around when you need service down the road. Also, “bad” companies usually don’t last. The average HTA certified company has been around for almost 17 years.

 

How many employees do they have?
Larger companies can often handle bigger projects and respond to service issues faster.

 

What areas do they service?
Working with a company that’s near your home often means quicker response times and no trip charges.

 

What kinds of projects do they focus on?
If you’re building a $15 million, 20,000 square-foot home, selecting a company that focuses on $500,000, 3,500 square-foot homes might not be a good fit.

 

What brands are they authorized to sell?
This will give you a look at the quality of gear the company can provide. This can also be important if you’re interested in a specific automation system like Control4, Crestron, or Savant, as dealers often specialize in one, but not all.

 

How many projects have they done over the past 3 years in different price categories?
A good snapshot of how busy the company is, and the focus of their projects.

 

What does a typical dedicated theater and media room install cost?
It’s a good idea to see if your budgets align with the company’s typical installs. HTA’s website also has a 20-question budgeting tool that can be very useful for getting a rough idea of what your project’s budget range should be.

 

What industry awards and certifications do they have?
Bad companies generally don’t win awards or attain industry certifications.

 

What are their service policies?
No matter how good your system is, at some point it will need to be serviced, and knowing the company’s after-sale policy upfront is a good way to avoid any frustration later on.

 

HTA understands that its certification will only mean something if it actually means something, not only to the industry but to people looking to hire an integration firm. They’re trying to do this by only letting in the best firms, and raising awareness with architects, builders, designers, and consumers that choosing a qualified—ideally certified—integration firm matters.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 3

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 3
Theo's Corner

photo by Adrianna Calvo from Pexels

In my previous column, I described how I discovered that the key to creating home theater designs that can be readily reproduced is to minimize the impact of the actual space—in other words, the room—on the design. This new approach, which is a radical departure from how I create my custom designs, allowed me to devise a system where wall panels wrapped in acoustical fabric and placed front of the room’s actual walls become a backdrop for artwork that hangs on them.

 

Treating the designs as akin to art displayed in a museum allowed me to focus not on how to fit a design into a room but on what the design elements should be, irrespective of any room. This freed me of the limitations of the actual space and allowed

me to focus instead on the thing that has the biggest impact on any room—the design elements. The design impact of a living room, for instance, isn’t primarily determined by the size of the space but by the choices of furniture, carpet, fixtures, and so on, and how they are placed within the room.

 

With this problem solved, I then decided, “I don’t want these designs to represent my aesthetic.” Now that I had devised a different approach to design, what if I invited others to create the actual designs, encouraging them to add new ingredients while staying within the confines of the new approach? By freeing these others of the burden of having to worry about the unique physical constraints of individual spaces, I could recruit collaborators so that home theater design would no longer be the solitary pursuit of just me and my imagination.

 

The decision to free home theaters from the restrictions of the room by devising a backdrop for a variety of designs was the first step. The second step was to devise those backdrops in such a way that they could not only serve as a blank canvas for design ideas but also address the other elements in a home theater that are usually dealt with separately, such as speakers and acoustics.

 

So we engineered the panels in such a way that they could not only incorporate and support various design elements but could also conceal the acoustic treatments and 

the speakers. Once I felt confident our concept for the panels could address all of these practical needs, I then approached various artists to create the room designs.

 

I originally said to myself, “Let me give a designer an empty room, and they can do what they want with it.” But the initial results were not what I expected. Designers are not trained to design with the technology needs in mind, so sometimes their design approach can have an impact on a home theater’s performance. So, by making the wall panels my responsibility, I relieved the designers of having to deal with an element that could limit their creativity. In other words, this approach allowed them to focus on having fun with creating their designs, which made the spaces fun for the clients.

Once I became a more active collaborator in the process, we were able to create some truly original works. We have since commissioned designs by well-known artists, including the sculptor Antonia Papatzanaki, architect Dimitris Theodorou, and photographer Marina Vernicos.

 

Each artist was able to use my backdrop as an opportunity to create artwork that reflects their individual aesthetic sensibilities. Having created the parameters within which someone’s design could be deployed on the wall panels, my primary responsibility was to ensure that the artwork wouldn’t in any way impede the room’s performance.

 

In my next column, I will discuss the extensive and innovative engineering that went into creating the amazingly flexible and adaptable wall panels.

Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is also an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo
is the Executive Director of Rayva.

Why Does the AV Industry Always Ignore the Signs?

Why Does the AV Industry Always Ignore the Signs?

Does the home theater community ignore its greatest—arguably, only—asset . . . its customers? I ask this question because it’s one I don’t think anyone in the AV press, the manufacturers, and even enthusiasts are asking themselves. So allow me to put it more simply: Is this hobby ignoring itself?

 

Here’s why I ask: In numerous surveys conducted by many of the “mainstream AV publications” over the years, it would appear that the results are at odds with what the manufacturers claim people are clamoring for. For example, in a recent survey of dedicated home theater enthusiasts, the number who actually owned a multichannel home theater system (5.1) was less than what you’d expect from a readership “subscribed” to a publication with the words Home and Theater in its title. 

 

To test this, I recently did a survey myself, asking more than 1,000 home theater enthusiasts, whom would remain completely anonymous, to tell me what type of home theater setup they had. An overwhelming majority—a near 70%—said their home theater was but a 2.0 or 2.1 setup with respect to the number of speakers, with the display of choice being a single flat-panel TV and no more than two digital sources. The delta between 2.0 home theater and 5.1—which came in second place, by the way—was four to one. Of those who participated, less than four percent had a 7.1 or greater surround sound system. Dolby Atmos, get out of town—no one has Atmos.

 

Now, this may seem like an opportunity for manufacturers and sales people to begin selling more surround sound setups and whatnot, but many of the participants in this survey offered (unsolicited) further comment as to the reasons why they had but a stereo-based home theater. Many had downsized from dedicated rooms and/or “bigger” setups, opting instead for simple, stereo after having fallen down the home theater rabbit hole.

 

Moreover, many of those who felt the need to comment felt they were able to invest more wisely in better components by paring down and thus getting far more for their money than when they tried to make their dollar stretch over a complicated multichannel setup. So if the data shows that fewer and fewer enthusiasts are actually opting for more speakers and more gear, why are we so consumed with trying to sell them more? Why not sell them what they’re asking for? What they need? How can this hobby and thus the industry expect to survive by ignoring the data before it?

 

It can’t.

 

It is my belief that the AV industry has largely operated under the Field of Dreams mentality, whereby if you build it they will come. Only problem is, it would seem that the game ended a long time ago, and only those who didn’t get the memo are still standing around in the cornfields wondering where everyone went.

 

Every January, the AV press collectively writes about how CES isn’t about them anymore, passed over (or perhaps passed-by) for smartphones, smart speakers, and the lot. But therein lies the rub. It’s not that consumers don’t want better sound, bigger pictures, and an overall better experience—they just don’t want it the same old way. So they’ve turned to other means and products to get their “fix.”

Why Does the AV Industry Always Ignore the Signs?

The AV industry as a whole, despite being part of the technology genre, has proven incredibly slow to act, react, and innovate. You’d never know that reading their press releases or attending their press events whereby everything they announce is “game changing!” The truth is, it’s not—not by a long shot. Too often they keep knocking on the door of the same customers saying hey, remember us? Yeah, we remember you—we bought said widget from you last year, and it wasn’t much different from the widget we bought the year before that. Rather than take that feedback and truly innovate, many manufacturers have adopted a new tack: Find a new audience—an older audience—abroad. Worse still are the ones who stay and insist that the only thing people will buy in the US is cheap crap.

 

This really gets under my skin, because it’s not that enthusiasts are cheap; it’s that they’re tired of having to buy the same thing over again. What are consumers supposed to do when asked to buy the same TV, the same disc spinner, the same whatever each and every year? I can tell you what I would do—spend as little as possible.

 

Now, build me something truly forward thinking, a product that either combines previous technologies in a whole new way or introduces new ones that actually work, and then let’s talk. Imagine a display that replaces the need for separate components, powered speakers that connect to the display wirelessly, and a system that configures itself via input from your smartphone, and I bet you’ll be able to charge a little more than what Vizios are commanding at Costco.

 

But what do I know? I’m just one of those unicorns the AV industry is trying to reach so desperately. I’m under 40, educated, with disposable income, and a predisposition towards AV gear. How big is my system? Stereo.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 2

Theo's Corner

I have been spending the past two years trying to figure out how we designers can come up with a recipe for creating home theaters that puts us on more solid ground than the ground we are on when a client gives us an empty room and tells us, “Go ahead and design a theater.” The traditional solution has been to ponder the situation, produce some ideas, then implement them in a very custom way. In other words, we always start all over from scratch.

 

When I started developing the concept that would become Rayva, my guiding light was always, “How can I make this design process more predictable? How can I turn what has always been a unique project into a reproducible product?” The goal was to allow some flexibility for the variables that differ from project to project while creating a recipe that offers predictable solutions for 90 percent of what goes into any home theater.

 

Of course, I would love to have the freedom to do what I want with a room. But that freedom can become seriously constrained when you have to spend a lot of your time on a project reinventing things that could otherwise be standardized.

My goal was to create an approach to home theater design that allowed for traditional
elements like furniture, carpeting, and decoration but wasn’t dependent upon room size

So I took the concept of home theater and tried to “explode” it into its constituent parts. Some of those parts are obvious—such as the furniture, the carpeting, and the location of the speakers and the screen. My goal was to take those ingredients and find a way to make their implementation simple and safe, time and again—safer for the client, simpler for the designer—so they would yield more predictable results. But without sacrificing any of the diversity or fun of designing an exceptional home theater.

Part of the trick here was to determine not just the design but the technical choices that could be standardized. Nailing all of that down would create a solid foundation upon which I and others could let our creativity roam free—and in a fraction of the time it takes to create a completely custom design.

 

I began this exercise by contemplating, “At the most basic level. what makes a design custom?” And the answer is that you are always at the mercy of the room, which will always differ from any other room. The width, length, height, placement of door entries, and so on are almost always different. To solve that problem, I essentially had to make the problem part of the solution.

 

The answer, it occurred to me, was to a find a standardized design solution that wasn’t dependent on the room size. This was an important discovery, because not being beholden to the specific dimensions of a room makes it much easier to come up with a design. And it also creates a structure that others can use to create designs of their own.

 

Think of the room’s design as akin to a painting. If you have a painting you want to enjoy, you don’t care about the size of the room it’s going to go into. You find the most appropriate place to put it on the wall, and then the painting becomes the design element that determines the other elements in the room.

It is the same with furniture. A nice piece of furniture can fit into a room that’s 12 by 15 or 18 by 20 or 30 by 40. You just add more furniture—or bigger furniture—to fill the room.

 

This gives you a sense of the design approach I arrived at, where you have standardized elements that, once combined, can yield a result as exciting as if you were to create a custom design—but freed of the tyranny of the room’s size.

 

In my next post, I’ll describe the method I’ve created for having luxury home theaters fit it any rectangular room, beginning at 11.5 by 16 feet, and how that led to my collaboration with a number of brilliant artists and designers.

Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is also an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo
is the Executive Director of Rayva.

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 1

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 1
Theo's Corner

This series of posts is meant to document the dramatic new direction I took with my career beginning about two years ago. Sensing that the needs for luxury home entertainment were changing, and that a new market was emerging in that area, I began to explore ways to create theaters that can be easily reproduced while still offering the ultimate movie-watching experience at home. I hope you enjoy the story of my efforts to reinvent home theater.

 

 

My life at the moment is consumed with the challenge of figuring out how to engineer all the various elements of a home theater. For years, I have seen how difficult it is to create each new theater design from scratch and to work my way through the process without a consistent structure, guided only by a vague application of aesthetics.

 

Designers and architects usually have a certain vocabulary they can refer to when they are designing a specific space like a dining room, bedroom, or bathroom. And each of those spaces is made up of specific elements that are the tools that they play with.

 

Those elements can be things like furniture, carpets, fabrics, sinks and other fixtures, and so on. These are specific objects, and their practical and aesthetic function within each space is clearly understood. A living room sofa would of course look as absurd in a bathroom as a bathroom sink would look in a dining room.

 

Once the value of the elements within a specific space is understood, designers have no restrictions on applying their imaginations to play with all of those elements so they can reward their clients with the best possible results.

 

It might seem as if designing a home theater would be the same, but it’s not. We do work with specific elements within a theater, and some of them—like chairs, carpeting, lighting fixtures, and fabrics—are similar to what you would find elsewhere in a home. But that similarity only holds true up to a certain point, because each of these things must be treated somewhat differently in a theater room—or in any type of entertainment space.

 

The main difference is that, whereas the use of technology is optional in most other parts of a home, it is essential to a home theater. And that technology creates demands that make it very difficult to use the same elements that designers use elsewhere in the home without understanding their potential impact on the performance of the room. Things such as acoustics and sight lines must be taken into account. This alone makes designing a theater room much more difficult than designing any other room.

Few if any of the elements in these custom-designed theaters could be easily
and economically reproduced to be used in other theater designs.

Oakland & Park Ave theater photos by Phillip Ennis, Palace theater photo by Michael Weschler

For my entire career until recently, I treated each home theater as utterly unique—partly because each room was unique, especially when it came to its dimensions. Bigger rooms create radically different design demands than smaller rooms. Also, the clients may have preferences for things like colors that won’t work at all well in a home theater space, mainly because they would draw attention away from the screen.

 

Each time I approached a new design, I would have to take all of these variables—such as room size and layout, audio/video equipment, furnishings, fixtures, carpeting, and client expectations—into account and then create a new recipe from scratch. But after having done this repeatedly over so many years, I began to wonder if there wasn’t a better way to approach home theater design—one that would be far more efficient but without compromising the final product.

 

So I began to try to figure out whether we, as designers and architects, could codify what it means to design a theater, and if I could come up with a recipe that would deliver more consistent results. Top of my list was to create a way to protect us from the failure that often comes from mixing ingredients without really understanding if the end result will be pleasing.

 

In the next installments of this series, I will describe how I created a more disciplined approach to home theater design that allowed me to not only collaborate with other artists on my designs but to engineer the various elements of a theater so they could be manufactured in a way that allows luxury theaters to be installed in a fraction of the time and cost of my custom designs.

Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is also an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo
is the Executive Director of Rayva.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

I have a friend who turns his nose up at surround sound. Press him on the matter and he’ll demur and hedge his argument, but it’s pretty clear he thinks stereo is where it’s at for movies and music alike.

 

And I think he’s absolutely bonkers.

 

I mention that not to pick on my friend but rather to empathize, because I imagine the face I make at him is the same face our own John Sciacca makes at me when I admit that I just don’t like Dolby Atmos—at least not for movies.

That may seem strange given that I’m on record as lauding the format—with its overhead speakers and innovative use of audio objects instead of channels—when applied to video games. You haven’t really played Overwatch until you’ve heard Pharah scream, “Justice rains from above!” from above your actual head.

The weird thing is, I love Atmos with gaming and generally hate it with movies for pretty much exactly the same reasons. And to understand why, you’re going to have to do a little homework.

 

Take a lawn chair out onto your front yard and sit in it with your back to the street. Your neighbors may give you strange looks, but this is for science. Just run with it.

 

Now pull out a book and start to read. At some point, a car might drive by behind you. If the book is decent enough, chances are you won’t even notice, unless you live on a street so remote that passing traffic is an oddity.

 

Keep on reading until a plane or helicopter passes overhead. Your concentration immediately broke, didn’t it? OK, maybe not if you live near an airport or airbase, and planes flying overhead are a regular occurrence. But for most of you, I’m sure, if something flies over your head, you’re gonna drop your book and look upward.

For me, Atmos is a lot like that. It triggers something in my primate brain. A fight-or-flight mechanism, if you will. I’m reminded of vervet monkeys, who have different words in their rather complex vocabulary for “python” and “eagle.” If a monkey shouts “python,” nearby members of its tribe scan their surroundings. If the cry is “eagle,” on the other hand, the other monkeys drop what they’re doing and run for the nearest hidey hole.

And Atmos generally does that to me. There’s just no denying that sound coming from overhead is hardwired into our brains as something we must focus on. And in a video game, that can be critically important. These virtual worlds often contain threats coming from every direction. Hearing that a baddy is attacking you from overhead can be the difference between virtual life and death.

 

But unlike video games, movies aren’t sandboxes. Our focus is on a rectangle of space right in front of us. Someone else gets to decide where our eyes turn. It’s an inherently horizontal experience. Surround sound coming from the sides and behind doesn’t violate that experience. Sounds coming from overhead do. As with our daily lives, anything that happens outside of that horizontal plane is somehow distinct, different, disconnected.

 

And that can actually be kinda cool with movies like Ready Player One or others that live or die purely on audiovisual spectacle. Heck, it’s even great with movies like The Last Jedi, where the overhead sound effects generally work to add ambiance and a sense of space, not vertical sensationalism.

 

But such mixes are few and far between. For the most part, Atmos serves only to distract from the narrative experience for me. And just to be clear, I’m not saying John or anyone else is wrong for liking that effect. I’m merely rebelling here against the increasingly pervasive notion that if you don’t have an Atmos-capable sound system by now, you’re somehow doing home cinema wrong. Try to seek out an Atmos demo before you decide if this “immersive” audio technology is right for you. And if it’s not—if tried-and-true surround sound does the trick—don’t feel like you’re selling your movie-watching experience short. I mean, as long as you’re not just watching movies in stereo . . .

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

Imagine watching a movie where sound travels around the room with pinpoint accuracy, helping you follow a character as they move around or enhancing the sensation of bullets whizzing past your head, planes streaking through the room, or helicopters hovering directly over your head! That is the promise of Dolby Atmos, which delivers the most realistic and immersive surround sound experience ever.

 

In my opinion, Dolby Atmos is the most exciting development to hit the home market in years and has an even greater impact on the movie/TV-watching experience than 4K HDR video. In fact, when forced to choose between watching a movie in 4K HDR without Atmos or 1080p Blu-ray with Atmos, I go the Atmos route every time. I’ve given dozens of demonstrations both in my showroom and in my home, and after experiencing a properly set up and configured Atmos system, no one has preferred the older, 5.1-channel sound. Atmos is a must have for a luxury installation.

 

Dolby Laboratories launched Atmos commercially in 2012 with Pixar’s Brave, and hundreds of films have been mixed with it since then. (Click here for a complete list.) It is now supported by every major movie studio, and the number of movies, concerts, and even video games with Atmos soundtracks is growing all the time. Atmos content is available on Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, titles

downloaded from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, and from streaming services like Vudu, Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.

 

How do you get it?

 

Experiencing Dolby Atmos in your entertainment space requires three basic things: An Atmos-compatible media player, an Atmos-compatible receiver or processor, and a speaker system that can handle however many channels you and your integrator decide to go with.

 

Compatible players include any Blu-ray or Ultra Blu-ray player, including Xbox One. Many streaming players support Atmos, including Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, and the new Apple 4K TV. Receivers and processors are available from companies like Marantz, Yamaha, Anthem, Denon, Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Integra.

 

What kinds of speakers do I need?

 

Dolby Atmos systems can support far more speakers than the 5.1 of Dolby Digital—up to 64 in commercial movie

WHAT MAKES ATMOS DIFFERENT?

 

Atmos is the latest in a long line of Dolby surround technologies dating back to the ‘70s. But, unlike previous versions, which were all channel-based (that is, the specific number of speakers the audio was mixed for in the studio), Atmos uses an entirely new process called “sound objects.”

 

Audio used to be mixed with a fixed number of speakers, up to 7.1 channels (front left, center, and right, surround right, surround back right, surround back left, surround left, plus a .1 channel reserved for low-frequency effects such as explosions). With Atmos, audio designers are no longer limited to a fixed speaker layout but have up to 128 sound objects they can move anywhere around the room, allowing sounds to be more precisely located.

 

These objects also have size and weight. Thus, a massive starship hovering overhead has a different feel—and plays out of more speakers—than, say, a bouncing tennis ball. All 128 of the audio objects from the original theatrical mix are retained and represented in the home release.

 

To precisely locate objects around the room, Atmos installations support far more discreet speaker channels, including multiple height speakers placed above listeners to create sounds that truly come from overhead. In fact, theatrical installations can have up to 64 speakers. Obviously, that is more speakers than home installations can support (Dolby Atmos for home cinema only supports up to 34 speakers), so Atmos uses something called a channel renderer to create a custom mix on the fly to remap audio objects to whichever speaker configuration is being used, meaning that nothing is lost between the theatrical and home audio mix.

theaters. One of the most significant changes with Atmos is the creation of two distinct speaker layers, with a bed of speakers at ear level and a second height layer that places sounds distinctly overhead. (See “What Makes Atmos Different?” above.)

The most common entry point for enjoying Atmos at home is a 5.1.2 speaker configuration. (In plain English, that means there are five speakers at ear or floor level, one subwoofer, and two speakers above ear level, for the height channels.) Most luxury installations use a 7.1.4 configuration (shown below). This provides a very immersive experience, with full 360-degree audio 

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

pans around the listener as well as good hemispherical coverage overhead.

 

For an even more engaging experience, companies like Marantz, Denon, Acurus, Storm Audio, and Datasat have receivers and processors that support more than 7.1.4 channels. And for a truly premium home experience, companies like Trinnov and JBL offer processors that can support the current maximum up to 24.1.10.

(While there are Dolby Atmos soundbars that do a fair job of creating an immersive audio experience, these would never be appropriate in a luxury installation, so I won’t be covering them here.)

 

Do I need speakers in my ceiling?

 

Yes. And no. (But mostly YES!) Having sounds all around the listener, including overhead, is key to creating a realistic, fully immersive sound environment, and locating speakers in the ceiling is the best way to help accomplish this. 

 

Fortunately, nearly any traditional, quality in-ceiling speaker is compatible with Atmos. (Dolby recommends using speakers with a wide dispersion pattern—that is, one that sends out sound more like a shotgun blast than a rifle bullet.) So choosing a model from the same manufacturer as your front speakers typically offers the best sonic match.

But if you can’t place speakers above you—due to a coffered ceiling or an open-beam design or difficulties running wire to the speaker locations—companies like Definitive Technology, Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer, Klipsch, and KEF offer floor-standing Atmos speakers with modules (shown at right) that can create an overhead speaker effect.

 

These angled modules sit atop the front and rear left and right main speakers, firing sound upward, where it’s reflected off the ceiling and bounced back down to listeners. While these can be great problem solvers, the audio effect of these upfiring modules is impacted by room design—ceiling composition, angle, and height, and seating distance—making it harder to predict performance compared to a true overhead speaker installation.

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

Dolby Atmos is a now a proven technology, widely adopted in both movie theaters and at home, and is almost always included as part of a modern luxury installation. If you’ve been looking to elevate your home audio experience to the next level, Dolby Atmos is a terrific place to start!

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Luxury Made Easy, Pt. 2

Some of Rayva’s home theater design themes

In Pt. 1, legendary designer Theo Kalomirakis discussed the signature home theater he created in NY’s Westchester County for his company, Rayva. Here, we talk to Theo about Rayva’s streamlined approach to theater creation and its ambitious plans for the near future.

—Michael Gaughn

 

What are the differences between a Rayva theater and one of your custom designs?

 

That starts with the price. For a custom project, I am the one who will design the theater. Clients can make it very difficult to maintain a custom business because they are justifiably demanding. That means I must spend a lot of time just trying to keep them happy. That was OK for me in the past, but right now what excites me is focusing on Rayva. We can give clients a good-looking theater without the complications of a custom design.

 

The only real difference between Rayva and a custom design is that with custom you can pick and choose whatever you want. You want the Taj Mahal, you can have the Taj Mahal. If you want the Acropolis—God forbid—all you need to do is ask, and you will get the Acropolis. But with Rayva, there is a limited repertory of designs and that’s what you have to choose from.

 

It seems like Rayva is meant to speed up the whole design and installation process.

 

Absolutely. With the Configurator app on our website, a client can select the room size closest to their own room, the chairs that will go in, the electronics package, and the design theme, all in the course of about two minutes.

The main steps of Rayva’s Configurator app

We are in the process of engineering the hell out of our theaters. When the process is over, we will be able to inventory the various components so they can be available as parts. We’re creating a very large database of components that can be shipped by UPS or Federal Express for next-day delivery to the client. I believe that before too 

long, we will be able to have a theater ready to be delivered and installed in a matter of days. The only thing not included in a Rayva theater is the installation. For this, we work with audio/video integrators who not only install the theater but also service it after it is completed.

 

Are there any particular kinds of rooms Rayva is best suited for?

 

Dedicated rooms. If we try to put Rayva in an open media room, it’s not going to work that well. You need at least three walls. It can be a basement, it can be the extra bedroom, it can be the attic.

 

Do you consider Rayva to be a luxury product?

 

It depends on how you define luxury. We have solutions that start at less than $60,000 for a complete theater—design, chairs, electronics, lighting. But, depending on the electronics package and the design, the price can go up quickly. I guess at $60,000 or more we are talking about a luxury product, even though the price is low for a typical soup-to-nuts theater. I do consider a Rayva theater a luxury use of a space. A dedicated room is not something everybody has. But luxury in this case doesn’t indicate necessarily a high price point.

 

The Rayvas theater we talked about earlier [in Part 1] was definitely on the luxury end, because we used the best treatments, the best chairs, the best leather, and a pricey design.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.